The tale of the rascally outlaws ushered in the 1960s as a time of violence fastened together by sympathetic revolutionaries. This revisionist legend romanticized the gangster genre, and heavily inspired director Terence Malick’s debut, Badlands. With a fantastic cast, and a bevy of different genres homaged, Bonnie and Clyde is the perfect crash course into the 1960s by way of the Great Depression.
Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde Barrow (Beatty) kick the dust off their small-town life and take to robbing banks. As the violence escalates, the duo become mythologized as Depression-era Robin Hoods.
I’ll try my hardest to keep my references to Badlands to a minimum, especially since I have a review of that film coming in September. Bonnie and Clyde certainly inspired Malick, and brought a resurgence to the gangster genre continuing with the award-winning Chinatown in 1974. Bonnie and Clyde came to represent the counter-culture and the outlaws were embraced through their romanticized view of the gangster genre. It isn’t surprising that the fashions and music of this movie would come to be embodied by the youth of the 1960s (look at the clothing worn by Patti Hearst during her bank robberies). Clyde and Bonnie were anti-authoritarian avengers of the poor and downtrodden, as evidenced by the various scenes of dispossessed farmers and “Oakies” who revere the duo as sacrificial lambs (there’s more than one reference to the Joads from The Grapes of Wrath that director Arthur Penn employs).
Embracing the gangster genre and reinventing it, the script goes through a series of shifts in tone and mood that create humor and romance. As Bonnie and Clyde become “innocents on the run” they decide to create a makeshift family. Clyde offers Bonnie, and the other members of the group by implication, freedom, fame and immortality; all of which are the feeble dreams of a child who hopes to find parents, or a mothering influence in Bonnie. He never finds a complete family unit, but the group assembled make an effort. The arrival of Clyde’s brother Buck (Gene Hackman in his début role) is convincing; a representative of the All-American man who’s commanding, yet possesses a dubious moral code. Upon meeting up with Clyde, Buck has to poke fun at his brother’s virility, or lack of it, by questioning Clyde about Bonnie’s sexual prowess – Clyde lies and says “she’s better.” Buck is the father figure within the family, right down to his wife (Estelle Parsons in a screeching, award-winning performance) calling him “Daddy.” When Buck meets his untimely conclusion, the family fractures as it would had the family patriarch died. In the end, simple-minded outlaw C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard) is the one who ends up betraying his created family to please his own father; the makeshift son of the gang betrays his “parents,” or at least the ones who gave him a new life. By the end, family ends up being a troubling and lethal influence as it would be with Manson’s “Family,” various religious cults, and the aforementioned Patti Hearst and the SLA.
Celebrity and violence are another motif beautifully executed (no pun intended); the former would be explored deeply in Badlands. Bonnie is a narcissist confined by her environment at the beginning; a trapped bird who believes she’s destined for better things. When she first meets Clyde, she gives her first performance in the role of a tough woman who isn’t seduced by his easy smile (although she totally is). Once the duo start robbing banks Bonnie envisions herself in a movie of her own creation. A fun moment (for me especially) is when the group hides out in a movie theater, and Bonnie watches Gold Diggers of 1933 (an anachronistic choice since Bonnie and Clyde is set in 1931). When she returns to the hotel she sings “We’re in the Money” while acting out a dance for the mirror; a movie screen for her own consumption. The group later takes provocative posed pictures to establish their legend and, at the end, a published poem written by Bonnie is a printed corroboration of their Robin Hood status (Clyde feels omnipotent and declares that Bonnie “made me somebody”). Director Penn and director of photography Burnett Guffey utilize movie techniques and interconnect them with the violence within the movie; the opening credits clicking of the camera reminds the audience of gunfire; Bonnie’s sepia-filled final moments with her family presents a hazy, romanticized photograph of a Depression-era family. The final “ballet of blood” is a blood drenched finale that’s never been rivaled (without heaping helpings of CGI).
Faye Dunaway is beautiful as the self-possessed Bonnie Parker, but the true star is Warren Beatty. Due to his status as a ladies man, the script removes any overt mentions of Barrow’s rumored homosexuality. Instead, the film’s Clyde suffers from impotence. The phallic imagery is on high alert in this film (okay, that pun might have been intended). Violence in this film goes hand-in-hand with sexual aggression, ironic considering Clyde’s inability to consummate his relationship with Bonnie. When the two meet, they have a sexually charged meeting right before Clyde robs a grocery store. It’s pretty steamy, with Clyde sucking on a Coke bottle at the same time as Bonnie. He eventually pulls out his gun while Bonnie lovingly fondles it. It’s a highly erotic moment that culminates with the first robbery and Bonnie becoming so turned on that she attempts to seduce Clyde to no avail. Later on, Clyde’s failure to have sex turns into his failure to shoot; it takes him three tries to shoot out a window pane. The ending of the movie turns contrived with Clyde’s impotence supposedly cured by hearing Bonnie’s poem published in the newspaper. It’s entirely unbelievable, but I guess necessary as it’s the one moment of bliss between the couple.
If you’re unaware of how Bonnie and Clyde ends then shame on you. As a historical record of the Barrow gang’s exploits, Bonnie and Clyde is fairly inaccurate. As a film that shook up the tired studio system with its bizarre mix of action, violence, comedy, and romance the film is a massive success. Warren Beatty shines and Faye Dunaway is luminous; the two create one of the most beautiful couples in film history. Go watch it, and then read a biography on the real Barrow gang and tell me the film isn’t better!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.